Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

What role does genetics play in sports performance? In the upper tiers of performance, it can be everything. While training can play a significant role in performance, the right anatomy and physiology can be the difference between a champion and an also-ran. Michael Phelps has the ideal body type for a swimmer. NBA players are almost all in the upper echelons of height. Even the "short" players often have arm spans and vertical leaps greater than normal. Certain groups of runners (such as those from some areas of Kenya) have genes that allow them to succeed in long distance running events. Usain Bolt hails from an area of Jamaica that has produced many fast runners. Jamaica is also a country that treats sprinting as a national sport, making it more likely that people will compete. (A fast runner in the US may focus on football instead.)

What does this mean for the average person? In some ways, not very much. They may not have the body to become an olympic champion at their preferred sport, yet they can still enjoy it and get better. Others may get better much more quickly. It may mean that they worked harder, but it could also mean that they are genetically predisposed to be better at the sport. Wealthy spectator-driven sports today tend to draw the greatest attention. Certain genetic characteristics that may not have been in demand earlier, suddenly are ideal for maximizing performance in certain sports. Will we gradually start to breed for these? Could we continue to maximize the "football" gene? What would the impact on society be? Would spectators still be as interested if they couldn't even see themselves as a competitor?

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

Shoe Dog provides an intriguing look at Phil Knight's earl life and the launch of Nike. It pretty much ends after the IPO, only briefly touching the growth from a small company to a mega-brand. The story has many parallels to the launch of Apple (which IPO'd at the same time.) Both Knight and Steve Jobs were passionate leaders who founded the company with a "technical guy" in a lesser role. However, Knight comes across as a much more sympathetic human being. (He has plenty of flaws, but appears to actually admit they are flaws.)

Knight run track at Oregon and kept his passion for sports at Stanford, where he wrote a business plan for importing shoes from Japan. After graduating, he borrowed some money for a tour of the world and an attempt to negotiate a deal to be a dealer for a Japanese shoe company. He ended up sealing the deal (with a not yet founded company). This venture was small at first and Knight ended up working another "real" job at an accounting firm. The import business gradually grew, though there were many instances when it could have all died. (There were late shipments, wrong sizes, reluctant banks and competing distributors.) Somehow the company made it through. However, the Japanese company (which was to become Asics) eventually asked to buy Knight's company. And when he wouldn't sell, they attempted to drop their distribution agreement. This forced the company to come up with their own manufacturing. Initially the quality was horrible, but the company's earlier reputation allowed them to get by until they improved the quality. However, the expenses left the company in a challenging situation - and a lawsuit that went the right way was perhaps the only reason they survived. Even the name Nike and the swoosh were somewhat created by chance. (The name was from an employee in a remote office. The Swoosh was a graphic designer that Knight overheard talking while he was teaching at Portland State.) The company managed to survive and grow through quality product and athlete endorsements. Eventually it expanded to the behemoth it is today. (And today Nike is the big guy, with others like Under Armour being the scrappy upstart.)

Nike's story would probably not occur today. With venture capital slushing around everywhere, there would be little need to grovel to banks. A few VC rounds would be easy for the taking, and the company could quickly launch an shoe import business. It would have probably just sat there for a while. Knight would also not have been working other jobs, so would not have met his wife during the teaching job. There may not have been a need to manufacturing, and we may still be wearing Adidas today. (Interestingly, both Nike and Under Armour IPO'd about 9 years after their "founding". However, Nike had seven years of existence as blue-ribbon sports before the founding.) The key takeaway is the tenacity needed to keep going, even in the face of adversity.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't

Good to Great was written right after the peak of dot com mania. There were many questions at the time of the validity of the book. (After all, wouldn't the new economy overthrow all the rules.) Alas, it didn't, and much of the work shown in the book is still applicable today. In the research project, they looked at companies that managed to go from good results to sustaine great results (measured by stock market returns). They were looking at long term results, thus most new tech companies did not have the decades of data to make the cut. The companies that achieved greatness were compared to those in the same industry that remained good, or that flamed out quickly. This left a small list of companies that included some still seen as great as well as others that have since managed to fall after the sustained greatness (Circuit City is a prime example.) The falls help to validate some of the precepts of the hypothesis. Even companies that manage sustained greatness cannot rest on their laurels or they will find themselves falling away.

To achieve greatness, companies had to do a a great deal of slow, behind the scenes work. By the time the companies were getting press coverage for the "turnaround", the process had already been well underway. The great companies were often lead by internal leaders who possessed "Level 5" leadership skills. These leaders were humble, yet strong. They were willing to listen to others and do what is best for the organization rather than what is best for them personally. The companies that rose to greatness focussed on building powerful teams, with people that were willing to be loyal and put in the the hard work needed to do what is best. Hiring the best people and then having them work was a better strategy than trying to create a quick change or bring in management consultants.

The leadership skills they found seem to be applicable to other aspects of life as well. A larger than life leader may be able to get things done with his shear will. However, when he is gone, a void is left. A level 5 leader can help create a culture of success that can continue to be replicated even after he is gone. They set the standard and freely acknowledge contributions of the team, while also taking responsibility for the results. They have high standards and principals, love what they are doing and inspire others to also achieve. A great leader seems like the top of boss that you would love working for and feel the need to work hard.